Multi-criteria evaluation of plant-based foods – use of environmental footprint and LCA data for consumer guidance

Karlsson Potter H, Röös E. Multi-criteria evaluation of plant-based foods – use of environmental footprint and LCA data for consumer guidance. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2021 2021/01/20/;280:124721. 

Relevant to: 

Dietitians-Nutritionists in Europe will be interested in the results of the environmental rating of plant-based products and in the links for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) guides on meat developed by the same authors – see “Of additional interest”. The article is also of interest for those wanting a greater understanding of the challenges of environmental rating of plant-based products.  

Question: 

The authors developed a consumer guide for plant-based products which uses multiple environmental indicators (climate, biodiversity, water, and pesticide use). It was developed with WWF Sweden for the Swedish market. This paper focuses on the methods of development.  

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

Most plant-based foods received a green star rating for climate impact, however including a fuller portrayal with other criteria (biodiversity, water, and pesticide use) shifted their overall ratings. Seventeen out of 90 products received an orange rating (the worst rating for plant-based foods). These included non-certified almonds, bananas, conventional asparagus … “non-certified cashew nuts, coconut (grated), hazelnuts, pistachio nuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, avocados, green beans from outside Europe, olives, cherries from outside Europe, dates, mangoes, and papayas” (p.7).  

The consumer guide (Vego-guide) will be available for use in Sweden.  

Abstract:

Many consumers are willing to move to a more plant-based diet, as is apparent from the increasing demand for plant-based protein sources on many markets. There is scientific evidence that such diets are associated with lower environmental impacts, especially climate impact, land use, and energy use. However, all food production affects the environment, and there is scope for more sustainable food choices even among plant-based foods. We present a method for environmental multi-criteria evaluation of plant-based products to enable communication through a consumer guide, which was developed in cooperation with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Sweden and involves a real-life case of implementation. The guide included 90 products, divided into five product groups. Four environmental impact categories were evaluated (climate impact, biodiversity impact, water use, pesticide use), to give a fuller, more complex picture of potential environmental impacts of plant-based products than when evaluating only one impact category, such as climate impact. Available environmental footprint data and LCA data adapted for the specific consumer market (Sweden) were used. A method for calculating absolute sustainability thresholds for single products was developed, based on newly published global sustainability boundaries for the food system (Willett et al., 2019). To account for the different dietary functions of food, different thresholds for evaluating different food groups were applied, thus accounting for the role, and to some extent the nutrient content, of different food products. This enabled evaluation of foods based on the same grounds, i.e., using the global sustainability boundaries and the same functional unit for all food products (1 kg of food at a store in Sweden), while visualizing differences in environmental impacts of products within a certain food group. This revealed the best choice of protein sources, vegetables, etc. The method provides a way to use large amounts of data of varying quality, and reduces the complexity in evaluating the environmental impacts of food. It therefore hopefully facilitates sustainable plant-based food choices, for more environmentally sustainable food consumption. 

Details of results: 

This article describes the methods, and highlights the challenges of developing an environmental rating system for plant-based foods. The methods build on the development of the WWF consumer guide for meat products. The guide includes 90 products, which are divided into five groups: protein sources; carbohydrate sources; plant-based drinks/ cream; fruit and berries; vegetables and mushrooms. To be consistent with the WWF meat guides, the developers used a ‘traffic-light’ system to rank environmental impact of foods: green (best), yellow, and orange (worst). Given that plant-based foods have less environmental impact than animal-based foods, the worst category in the meat guide is red, and the authors developed a “better-than-green choice” for plants – green star (p.4).   

Some of the challenges encountered and how they were overcome are described in detail within the article. For example, as highlighted in other articles reviewed on this website, the decision of which functional unit of food to measure is complex. While they chose weight (1 kg edible product in a store in Sweden), weight can be misleading when comparing foods with different nutrient functions (e.g., protein versus carbohydrate predominant foods). To overcome this, the authors applied different sustainability thresholds (based on sustainability boundaries) for different product groups.  

Other challenges related to the environmental impact categories included limitations with LCA (life cycle assessment) data, lack of information available on pesticide use, and uncertainty related to data on water. It is of interest that the authors combined land use and biodiversity loss within the indicator of biodiversity impact. 

The authors note that consumer guides provide a less challenging and less costly alternative to labelling individual foods. 

Of additional interest: 

WWF Meat guides from Sweden, Finland and Germany 
Meat Guide – Baltic WWF (wwfbaltic.org) 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959652613007191 
Röös E, Ekelund L, Tjärnemo H. Communicating the environmental impact of meat production: challenges in the development of a Swedish meat guide. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2014 2014/06/15/;73:154-64. 

Editor’s comment:  

Table 5 within the article highlights a sample of the results from the evaluation; all results are available in Table S4 in the supplementary materials.   

Open access link to article: 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095965262034765X

Conflict of interest/ Funding:  

No competing interests declared.  

External relevant links:  

N/A

Corresponding author:

hanna.e.karlsson@slu.se 

Transparency | Diversity | Dynamism | Evidence-based |

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